medical technology

Navigating the Brain in Bavaria

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and founder and CEO of Brainlab Stefan Vilsmeier attend official opening of Brainlab headquarters in Munich
Mr. Vilsmeier shows Chancellor Merkel around medicine's digital future. Source: REUTERS

Munich-Riem Airport closed in 1992 and for a quarter of a century, its red brick control tower stood empty. But earlier this summer, it had a visit from Chancellor Angela Merkel. The defunct travel hub was being inaugurated as the fancy new headquarters of just the kind of business success that politicians like to be seen supporting, ahead of elections.

Brainlab is a medical equipment and software provider focused on two major growth areas, surgery and oncology. “Their products are essential for us,” says Johannes Schramm, director of neurosurgery at the Bonn University Hospital. They include medical navigation software that allows doctors to precisely locate and remove tumors.

Brainlab employs 1,400 people and has revenues of €260 million, or $306 million. Exports make up 90 percent of that sum.

During her visit Ms. Merkel argued that export-oriented firms like Brainlab are the best proof of how important trade treaties are, and promised to support entrepreneurs like Brainlab chief executive, Stefan Vilsmeier, pledging her commitment to real-time data transmission, a key requirement for  telemedicine, the remote treatment of patients via telecommunications.

Mr. Vilsmeier had to cancel an IPO at the last minute after the commercial environment changed radically in just a few days.

At 19, Mr. Vilsmeier published a book about 3D graphics that sold more than 50,000 copies and gave him the financial base to set up his own company at 21. He started college but left after just three weeks to focus on the rapidly expanding business.

Mr. Vilsmeier employed strategies unusual for the medical technology industry. He raised Brainlab’s public profile by advertising with cycling star Lance Armstrong, whose cancer was treated with Brainlab equipment in the 1990s. But there have been failures, too. At the turn of the millennium, Mr. Vilsmeier had to cancel an IPO at the last minute after the commercial environment changed radically in just a few days.

Still privately held, the company now has offices in 65 countries. But Mr. Vilsmeier says the new grounds in his native Bavaria are special. “It was from here that I set off on my first business trip 28 years ago,” he says.

As a college dropout, the entrepreneur is always ready to hire people who think outside the box. But these days, they expect fringe benefits. The control tower doesn’t just house operating rooms to demonstrate equipment and software, but also a space for yoga, a café and even club for parties.

Joachim Hofer covers the sports, leisure and IT sectors for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: hofer@handelsblatt.com

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